Future Tense

Far-Right Extremists Are Using Personal Radios to Plan Violence

Is the government prepared to stop them?

A silhouette of a man in a cap holding a walkie-talkie
Javier Durán/EyeEm

During Cassidy Hutchinson’s explosive testimony at the Jan. 6 commission’s hearing on Tuesday, footage was shown of the chaotic scene at the White House Ellipse on that day, as an estimated more than 10,000 people lined up to go through magnetometers to listen to former President Donald Trump speak. This rally would eventually lead to the assault, as Trump exhorted the crowd to “fight like hell” by protesting at the Capitol. Early reporting from the Secret Service, sent at 8:51 a.m., described a crowd dressed for action in body armor, ballistic helmets, and backpacks. The report also noted that many of them carried radio equipment.

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Indeed, during the dizzying aftermath of Jan. 6, reporting and intelligence work revealed that some on the extreme right turned to amateur and unlicensed personal radio for more direct communication during the attack. Days later, on Jan. 17, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission put out a sternly worded statement: “Certain radio services regulated by the Commission may be an alternative to social media platforms for groups to communicate and coordinate future activities.” It reminded radio operators that it is illegal to use radio frequencies to plan crimes.

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This use of radio during the highest-profile instance of right-wing extremism in decades, however, is not unique. It is part of an obscure but increasingly concerning phenomenon among the far right in recent years: using radio as a means of clandestine communication.

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Right-wing extremists primarily use the personal radio services band, described by the FCC as “short-range, low-power radio communications using devices that operate much like walkie-talkies.” They do not require transmission towers or extensive equipment like more commercial FM or niche “ham” radio, and are often individual transceivers. Personal service radio includes unlicensed two-way communication methods like Citizens Band, Family Radio Service, and Multi-Use Radio Service, which anyone can use without a license. PRS is geographically limited to smaller areas, with a typical broadcasting range of only a few miles.

The use of personal radio bands has a long history on the extremist right, dating back to pro-segregation efforts in the 1960s. During the U.S. civil rights movement, Citizens Band radio became more commercially accessible and trendy, leading many on the far right to adopt it. According to Art Blake, a professor of history at Toronto Metropolitan University, KKK groups engaged in terrorist activity adopted CBs as early as 1961 to communicate about the whereabouts of law enforcement. In the 1980s, white supremacist group the Order communicated via car-mounted CBs during its spate of bank robberies across the American West. Racist border militias often use Family Radio Service frequencies while hunting for people crossing the border without documents. And there are many examples of racist harassment over the personal airwaves turning into real-life violence on a smaller scale.

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More recent reporting demonstrates an interest in radio by diverse segments of the resurgent far right. A January 2021 NBC News story describes a panicked QAnon follower purchasing radio equipment to communicate after Parler was deplatformed in the wake of the attempted insurrection. (It began operating again about a month after being kicked offline.) Reddit’s main radio hobbyist community, r/amateurradio, has a specific rule against posting militia content, though its moderators declined to comment on what led to the creation of this rule beyond pointing out that theirs is not a political forum. Another amateur radio operator, who declined to provide his name for fear of retaliation, has heard discussion of conspiracy theories on air, though it stopped short of criminal activity.

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Why radio? The format seems rather outdated and clunky relative to easily accessible phones and apps. But for the extreme right, increasing perception of “hostility” on more conventional communication platforms has driven the switch to personal radio. If you’ve been deplatformed by Twitter or Facebook, or if you know that you’re likely to be, radio offers a new venue for communication, especially when used on the ground. As we’ve seen in other arenas, the deplatforming of extremism (especially far-right extremism) is a double-edged sword. While removing such content from conventional, easily accessible platforms like Facebook and Twitter has hurt the ability of extremist groups to spread their ideas, it has also driven movements underground and condensed their more devoted, toxic elements on more obscure and less monitored platforms.

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As social media began to crack down on extremist content and baseless conspiracy theories, a universe of “alt-tech” platforms emerged to fill the vacuum. Historically, right-wing extremist groups have adopted personal radio services for similar reasons in the face of “modern” tech monitoring. Klansmen would utilize CB radios to engage in mobile, discreet tactical communications and avoid the risks of more easily monitored technology like telephones. “They would have … been happy to use CB radio’s relative privacy. The FBI might tap your landline phone in the early 1960s, but they could not monitor sporadic, local CB radio communications,” Blake said.

Personal radio services, in particular, have become increasingly important for local communication among paramilitarily minded extreme right-wingers. These services may seem opaque and dated relative to social media platforms, but that aesthetic is part of what makes them so appealing. For instance, Telegram is not as obviously visually tactical as using a radio. Mark Pitcavage, senior director of fact-finding at the Anti-Defamation League, describes this preoccupation as sometimes being one of “tacticool”—a term that originated on 4chan to describe the fusion of gear fetishism and military aesthetics commonplace in some armed right-wing movements. Groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Boogaloo Bois, and other segments of the paramilitary right are extremely preoccupied with collecting new and exciting pieces of gear, regardless of their actual overall strategic purpose. Radio communities are littered with mockery and disdain for militia members and their cheap, typically imported radios, often used with little understanding of the intricacies of broadcasting.

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A closer look at militia sources indicates how devoted they are to their gear in an almost campily militaristic way. One Massachusetts-based militia organization has a publicly available operational security guide for radio use, loudly demanding that members learn the phonetic alphabet and recommending helpful hints like “colorful euphemisms” for discussing militia activities while on air: training becomes “going to the dance,” guns “tools,” and ammo “boxes of candy.” The group’s advice comes with a grim all-caps warning: “DO NOT DISCUSS ANYTHING THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO TELL THE WORLD ON ANY AIRWAVE, CHANNEL, NETWORK OR FREQUENCY. EVER, EVER, EVER.”

The desire for discreet, tactical communication is an alarming indicator of heightened militarization. During the 2016 standoff at a wildlife refuge in Oregon, anti-government militia members utilized tactical radios to communicate with one another while resisting federal authorities. Militia members have been spotted with radios at local political demonstrations, and they frequent electronics stores to get beginner radio sets.

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Jan. 6 is easily the highest profile instance of far-right radio usage being linked with violence. Declassified FBI documents revealed that federal law enforcement knew groups marching on the Capitol would possibly use radio to communicate with one another, and emergency services provided preprogrammed radios to local police to listen in. An unsealed indictment revealed that several Proud Boys acquired radios for communications on that day, meant to ensure they were “decentralized … until further orders.” Militia groups from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, met to discuss the use of radio for emergency communications prior to departing for the Capitol. Images from that day reveal many other participants carrying hand-held radios.

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The adoption of radio is not a universal trend among extremists. “The average militia group is very small. … Some people are more into it than others, and some are more technically proficient than others,” Pitcavage said. Still, radio has been a factor in the most high-profile instances of insurrectionary right-wing violence—from Oregon to D.C.

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Unlike with personal radio service bands, there is a system to monitor ham radio platforms, run largely by volunteers. “Ham radio” broadly describes the noncommercial, often individual use of radio bands for communicative, personal, and hobbyist purposes. Unlike PRS, ham radio requires licensing by the FCC, including a technical exam and extensive study of radio equipment. Broadcasts can also reach across hundreds of miles.

The FCC is able to gather info on amateur broadcasts that violate the law through its friends in the ham radio community. Ham radio operators like Dan Dembinski of the Central Michigan Amateur Radio Club and their local communities have also taken to pushing away extremist activity when they see it. Dembinski described a system of “self-policing” in the ham community, particularly through ham radio “auxiliaries” who listen in on broadcasts regularly and report potentially illegal or harmful content directly to federal authorities. These auxiliaries note and report the frequency and location of questionable content for FCC tracking. “They would be really stupid to use the frequencies that are allocated for ham radio. There’s too many hams out there that monitor them and report them to the FCC,” Dembinski said. The FCC itself declined to comment on its regulatory actions and the circumstances that led it to issue warnings on the use of radio for criminal activity.

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But PRS is not ham radio, and the two often do not mix. Though ham radio itself has been well monitored by volunteers, the recent influx of cheap and effective personal radios has made broader monitoring less possible. Richard Fairburn, a retired law enforcement professional who has written on radio issues, said that law enforcement must be aware of the popularity of radio, particularly with the wave of low-cost products hitting the radio market. “Since the radios can be programmed to any frequency within their limits, some ‘unused’ or ‘black’ frequencies can be used, which would be very unlikely to be monitored by the FCC or ham operators,” he said.

Fairburn was also clear that he had not heard of efforts by the FCC to assist local law enforcement to listen in on criminal communications, and the FCC declined to comment on how it works with local agencies to monitor PRS. A spokesperson reiterated via email that the agency’s January announcement “speaks for itself.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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